State’s, tribes’ powers clash in Connecticut
More than two decades after the Mashantucket Pequots were granted federal recognition, the boundaries of where Connecticut’s control ends and tribal law takes over are still emerging.
Now, a vote by Foxwoods Resort Casino dealers to organize a union has tapped into the deep, yet sometimes murky, well of tribal sovereignty.
A series of agreements, statutes, case law and other procedures have determined such issues as who pays state sales tax on the reservation (nontribal members) and whether a branch of a state bank opened on tribal trust land is still considered a Connecticut bank (it is).
But other realms remain unexplored.
“I think the concept of sovereignty is difficult for anyone to understand, including myself,” Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said. “It’s very complex and it varies from issue to issue.”
Jackson King, general counsel to the Mashantucket Pequots, said sovereignty is an ever-present topic for the tribe.
“If we were going through the minutes of the council meetings for the past 15 years,” he said, “we’d be hard pressed to find one meeting where some aspect of sovereignty isn’t discussed.
“I think every tribe feels the federal government has nibbled at sovereignty as time goes on.”
The same agreement between the state and tribe to allow casino gambling put dealer licensing, casino policing and other issues in Connecticut’s hands rather than the tribe’s.
N. Bruce Duthu said the history of intergovernmental relations between tribes, European settlers and, later, the federal government has been uneven from the start.
“Treaty-making made a lot of sense, when you had very small European settlements interacting with tribes that had the capacity,” he said, “and the willingness to annihilate encroachers.”
Duthu, who teaches at Dartmouth University and Vermont Law School, is publishing “American Indians and the Law” this month. The tribes have sought respect through the years for their governments, history and culture, he said, something that hasn’t always materialized on the national level.
“There’s plenty of historical evidence to suggest that the federal government didn’t take them seriously,” Duthu said of the post-colonial era. “Tribes were like Play-Doh and sovereignty was like Play-Doh.”
After periods of the federal government actively seeking to dismantle tribes, he said, more recent conflicts revolve more around what tribal issues might intersect with federal and state governments as well as how sometimes vague federal laws apply to reservation life.
Battlegrounds have ranged from whether tribes should charge state sales tax on their reservations to nuclear industry regulation to the Mashantuckets’ employment jurisdiction claims.
And anything involving money, power and respect often gets very, very volatile, Duthu said.
“What often makes Indian issues so controversial,” he said, “is that they often involve all three.”
For the municipal neighbors of the Mashantuckets and Mohegans, the policy has been vigilance in regards to the tribes’ plans for future expansion, including requests to take land into trust.
“It threatened to really change the character of our towns,” Preston First Selectman Robert Congdon said of the Mashantuckets plans in the 1990s to take 1,200 acres in Ledyard, North Stonington and a small part of Preston into trust. Once land is taken into federal trust it is exempt from local zoning regulations and taxation.
“The potential was for thousands of acres in the three towns,” Congdon said.
The three towns sued the tribe and, after years of litigation, the Mashantuckets eventually withdrew their request. The land today is home to the tribe’s Lake of Isles Golf Course and pays property taxes to North Stonington.
In recent years, the tribes and the towns have worked together more, Congdon said, including on improving infrastructure in the area.
Still, the concept of separation does not sit well with him personally, Congdon said.
“I think it goes against the very principles this country was founded on....One nation for equal rights and protection for everyone,” he said. “Sovereignty kind of says that we’re not one nation, we’re multiple nations.”
Reach Erica Jacobson at 425-4241 or email@example.com.